Friday, July 21, 2006

Iran's Motives in Lebanon

While Hezbollah forces are busy dodging Israeli missiles, their backers in Iran are throwing out words of support in their defense -- and not much else. Iran is watching as its most prized militant asset in the region gets clobbered by Israeli forces, which raises the question of why Tehran played a part in orchestrating this flare-up in the first place.

To begin delving into the psyche of the Iranian regime, we must step back a few days to July 10, the day before the Hezbollah attack in which two Israeli soldiers were abducted in the disputed Shebaa Farms area. The international community at that time was screaming about North Korea's provocative long-range missile test, and the threat of a nuclear-armed Pyongyang dominated the headlines for weeks. READ MORE

The Iranians and North Koreans regularly play off each other's carefully timed nuclear "crises" -- to the extent that Iranians were reportedly present at North Korea's July 5 missile tests. With North Korea grabbing the world's attention, Tehran had considerable room to maneuver with its own nuclear agenda and skillfully evaded a U.N. Security Council demand for Iran to respond to a package of incentives designed to curb the Iranian nuclear program. The door was open for some adventurism in other areas where Iran possessed assets.

Next door in Iraq, sectarian violence was soaring to unprecedented levels -- Sunni guerrillas continued their attacks, and Shiite death squads roamed relatively freely on the streets, pulling Sunnis out of their homes and cars and shooting them to death. The rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq was driving the U.S. exit strategy even further into the ground, as Shiite political leaders with close links to Iran refrained from taking any action to rein in the Shiite militias.

Meanwhile, Israel already was heavily engaged in a military offensive in the Palestinian territories following the abduction of an Israeli soldier. The banner to resist Israeli aggression had been raised and Hezbollah was itching at the chance to re-legitimize itself as the leading resistance movement and expose the impotence of the Arab states that quickly ducked under cover when the conflict erupted.

With all these cards in place, Iran likely calculated that it would be an opportune time to ignite Hezbollah and enhance its own position as the true vanguard of the Islamic world. Being a Shiite power, Iran faces serious obstacles in crossing the Sunni divide to achieve its desired status in the region. By provoking Israel into a major military offensive in which Israeli airstrikes killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians and destroyed Lebanon's core infrastructure, the Iranians could have very well intended to incite an uprising throughout the region in protest against Israel's aggressive military campaign.

This assumption, however, may have been a miscalculation on Iran's part. Israel's war against Hezbollah has exposed glaring rifts between the Sunni and Shiite populations. The Sunni Arab regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are staunchly protesting Hezbollah's provocations while Shiite communities in Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and other areas are vehemently criticizing the Arab states for standing back from the conflict. It has come to a point where the Arabs have become as distrustful of Iran as they are of the United States and Israel.

Israel is not going to back down from its military campaign until it paralyzes Hezbollah's militant wing. This is evidently a major sacrifice for Iran to make -- but Israel's current offensive will by no means eradicate Hezbollah as a thriving Shiite resistance movement with the tenacity and will to build itself back up.

Because Iran does not share a border with Lebanon, it conveniently lacks the means to intervene militarily in the conflict. Instead, the Iranian government can call for boycotts and rally the region against Israeli aggression, while it positions itself for the United States and Israel to come to Tehran to negotiate an end to the crisis. According to the Iranian view, Tehran can then promote the idea that it has reached an autonomous role in the region, having stepped in where the seemingly ineffective Arab states could not. Moreover, Iran will have the assurance that the United States and Israel are not willing to engage it militarily, even when it sparks a regional crisis through its militant surrogate in Lebanon.